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In 1952 a plane crashed in Tacoma. A typo saved this man's life.

U.S. Air Force, via Wikimedia Commons
A USAF C-54 Skymaster, like the one that crashed on approach to McChord Air Force Base in 1952.

This story originally aired on Nov. 4, 2017.   

On Nov. 28, 1952, a chance occurrence – a clerical error – resulted in Bob Hofferber not catching his scheduled flight from Fort Ladd, Alaska to McChord Field in south Tacoma. It was an error that likely saved his life. The U.S. Air Force C-54G Skymaster crashed on its approach, resulting in the deaths of all but two of the people on board.

Bob had spent most of the day checking out of Ladd Air Force Base, where he was coming to the end of an eighteen-month deployment in the Air National Guard. As he reached his last stop, the finance office, he hit an unexpected snag.

“They went through my records and they discovered an error on there: Some of my records showed that I was still single; they didn’t have me down as married. And they said, ‘You’ll have to go back to your Orderly Room,’ which was our headquarter office, and get this retyped corrected and then bring it back.’ And I said ‘My office is closed,’” Hofferber recounted.

“I mean those guys, they didn’t care, it’s just, ‘Tough. Figure it out.’ So … I was mad and my wife was staying with some friends – we’d given up our apartment – so I called her and told her what was happening and I decided I was going to try and get a ticket with her, and go in the morning.

“I woke up in the morning and they had a little table radio by where we were sleeping, and I turned it on just to hear the local news, and it was -- I heard for the first time there that the aircraft had crashed. So my wife and I were just totally, totally shocked. And all we could think about was some way of letting our parents know that we were not on that airplane,” he said.

The writer and journalist Murray Morgan filed a radio report from the crash scene that night – a report that remained lost until after his death. It was discovered in his study on an unlabeled, seven-inch spool of audio tape. And it retains a startling immediacy.  

“This is a dreadful and eerie scene out here,” his account began. “It is cold and it is dark and it is foggy. There are flames from the plane still smoldering an hour, an hour and a half after the crash … The bodies are being put under brown army blankets. From time to time the blankets are lifted so that the number of dead may be counted.”

Witnesses described seeing burning bodies still strapped in their seats, as did Bob’s father, who had driven to the crash site from his home in south Tacoma when he heard of the crash. It wasn’t until the next morning that he learned his son hadn’t made the flight after all.

By coincidence, Bob went on to work in engineering, specializing in airport radar systems. He and Delores had three children. And across the years, he says, they would find themselves thinking about the families that were lost that night, and the run-of-the-mill administrative error that likely saved his life.

“I’ve always felt grateful that I was able to go on with my life, and felt that for some reason we were both spared,” Hofferber said. “I’ve always been fairly religious so I attached a lot of that to being religious. But I just felt lucky that I was able to have a family and live a pretty good life.”